DLR to design extra-terrestrial greenhouse module

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has launched a project to design a greenhouse module suitable for possible habitats on Mars or the Moon.

While extra-terrestrial greenhouses are not a new idea, DLR’s ‘bio-regenerative life-support system’ will focus on a high degree of automation, with a prototype hopefully ready for deployment in Antarctica by 2014.

One of the key requirements of the design will be for it to fit within the allowable volume of the Ariane 5 launcher — the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) ‘workhorse’ rocket.

‘We design for space, but we’ll use it most likely on Earth,’ said Dr Daniel Schubert of the Institute of Space Systems, the DLR’s think tank for innovative space missions. ‘We also want to solve urgent terrestrial challenges such as vertical farming and desert applications,’ he added.

As well as a continuous food supply for the crew, the team will work on other functions such as grey water purification, oxygen production, various waste-management tasks and the production of bioplastics, cloths and medicine.

For the overall module architecture, the team is currently evaluating designs ranging from rigid cylinders to inflatable or semi-rigid structures — considering the optimum trade-off between complexity and growing space.

Inside meanwhile, there will be a series of eight subsystems, including a harvest and cleaning unit, nutrient-delivery system, germination channel unit and data and control-management subsystem.

‘We’ll most likely use soil-less cultivation principles such as aeroponics or hydroponics because you cannot take [soil] with you as it’s too heavy… you might think about using the soil out there but, in the end, the uncertainties are too great.’

’Also, we won’t use light from the sun, because you have to use different shielding and the radiation levels are quite high — LED technology is looking like the most promising.’

A common theme that runs through various aspects of the design will be achieving a high degree of automation. For example, micro cameras at the top of each germination channel will observe the plant’s health status with picture-recognition software dedicated to plant-illness detection.

To this end, the DLR team will also be working with the Department of Human-Machine Systems at the Technical University of Berlin.